FRIDAY, Feb. 10, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Two new studies suggest that even moderate amounts of parental conflict can wreak havoc on the lives of children, disrupting their sleep and causing negative feelings in their day-to-day lives.
Kids even feel distressed when the parents give each other the "silent treatment" in the hope their children won't notice they're angry, said Patrick T. Davies, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and lead researcher on one of the studies.
"These kids are still able to pick up on the fact that their parents are unhappy with each other," Davies said, "and it comes through when you ask them questions about how they feel: they report feeling more fearful, more angry, more sad."
In recent years, researchers have been studying how parental interaction affects children, with an eye toward finding the tipping point where problems in a marriage begin to disrupt the emotional lives of children.
One of the new studies looked at sleep. Researchers at Auburn University in Alabama and Brown University in Providence, R.I., studied 54 healthy 8- and 9-year-old children, interviewing both them and their parents about their family lives. The children also wore a watch-like device called an Actigraph, which tracks their sleep patterns by monitoring their movements.
The findings appear in the January/February issue of Child Development.
The team found that even moderate amounts of parental conflict -- including angry outbursts and belittling comments -- can disrupt children's sleep.
In general, kids in families with moderate to severe levels of conflict lost about 30 minutes of sleep per night, said study author Mona El-Sheikh, a professor of human development and family studies at Auburn University. That may not seem like much, she said, "but this half hour is occurring throughout the night and might prevent them from getting into stages of sleep where they really need to rest."
The result, she said, could be irritability the next day, and other problems.
How much conflict was too much? El-Sheikh said the conflict level found in typical families was enough to cause problems. "A lot of them engaged in putting each down verbally, making fun of each other sometimes. Most families have engaged in some level of that," she noted.
The other study was led by Davies and appear in the same journal. Researchers from the University of Rochester in New York and the University of Notre Dame tracked 223 6-year-old children and their parents for one year to see how parental conflict affected the youngsters' emotional state.
Children were more likely to suffer from emotional difficulties if their parents engaged in what the researchers described as "hostile or indifferent" interactions with each other.
The researchers wanted to figure out if the children became accustomed to the conflict and felt better over time, or remained troubled at the same level, lead researcher Davies said. The latter turned out to be true.
"When kids are exposed to high levels of conflict between their parents, they don't get used to it," he said. "They become more sensitive and reactive to it."
What to do? Davies suggested that parents try to keep their major conflicts behind closed doors, although not necessarily all the time. And El-Sheikh said parents should make sure to do one thing when they resolve a problem: do it in front of the children.
At times, parental conflict leads to separation. For advice on helping kids deal with divorce, head to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.